Muslim pilgrims gather at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia July 19, 2021. REUTERS
ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia, July 19 - Thousands of face-masked pilgrims performing Islam's annual haj pilgrimage gathered on Mount Arafat on Monday to atone for their sins, expressing hopes for peace and an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, has barred worshippers from abroad for a second year running and has restricted entry from within the kingdom under special conditions to guard against the coronavirus and its new variants.
Only 60,000 Saudi citizens and residents, aged 18 to 65, who have been fully vaccinated or recovered from the virus and do not suffer from chronic diseases, were selected for the rite, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
"It is an indescribable feeling that I got selected among millions of people to attend the haj. I pray for God to put an end to these hard times the whole world has gone through under the coronavirus," said Um Ahmed, a Palestinian pilgrim who lives in the Saudi capital Riyadh and who said she lost four family members to the virus.
In previous years, more than two million pilgrims used to cover Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat, sitting close to each other in the scorching heat of the desert city of Mecca, carrying umbrellas and fans to keep cool as temperatures rose towards 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
This year pilgrims, dressed in white robes signifying a state of purity, had to observe social distancing and wear face masks on Mount Arafat, the hill where Islam holds God tested Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail.
Mount Arafat is also where Prophet Mohammad gave his last sermon.
"The first prayer is to ask God to lift this pandemic, this curse and this grief for all humanity and for Muslims, so in the next years they are able to attend haj and for millions to refill these holy sites," said Maher Baroody, a Syrian pilgrim.
Reporting by Marwa Rashad in London and Reuters multimedia team in Mecca; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Giles Elgood
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